Argentina - its a wrap!

Trip Start Aug 09, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Monday, March 10, 2008

Its always daunting to sit down at the keyboard and start typing away a summary of the last several weeks.  This may be my longest update yet.  Feel like I barely remember Mendoza.
So, Mendoza.  Nice looking city.  It rained just about every day.  One plaza in particular is crazy looking because everything, from the ground, to the benches, to the fountain, is tiled.  But whereas at a lot of other places in Argentina nobody goes out until 2am, the bars in Mendoza stop letting people in at 2:30 for some reason.  Watched the crazy crazy Super Bowl.  Its pretty anti-climatic watching with non Americans and with Spanish announcers.  They also mute out the crowd noise here.  Mendoza is known for its wines, but honestly, I´ve had enough of making such a big deal of wine places.  I´ll still drink it and like it, but I really don`t need to tour vineyards, taste different samples, make entire excursions out of it.  Have hit up lots of wine country before here.
Really cool thing near Mendoza is Mount Aconcagua.  World`s tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas.  Not too shabby.  Would love to trek to the top of it, but it takes like 3 weeks (mostly just because of acclimation time) costs a load (need mules and other camping equipment I don`t have), and I wasn`t trusting my knee at this point anyway.  But there is a national park around it where you can do day hikes or even 3 day hikes (the park passes come in increments of day, 3 day, or summit).  Got up early in the morning to catch a bus out to the park, but I missed it by an hour.  How?  My clock was off.  Basically, my clock has been off by an hour for the past month without me noticing.  Gotta love traveling.  Anyway, caught the later one, and the park was really pretty.  Would like to come back here sometime and summit the mountain.  It is not known to be difficult at all (depending on your route, of course).  Also visited the goofy looking Puente del Inca nearby, a naturally formed bridge.  Forget how exactly.  Whoops.
Next went to Malargue.  This is the place I wanted to go to way back when I was in Chile.  Its right accross from Talca, but Talca didnt have any public transportation there accross the mountains.  When I told folks where I was going next I always got a ¨Huh??¨.  Thats how you know you`re gonna be able to practice your spanish there.  The scientists outnumbered the tourists here.  Met a lot of geologists, geographers, even botonists and biologists.  The area around Malargue has the highests concentration of volcanoes in the world, with around 800.  It is separate from the Andes, although it is really close to them.  Right after arriving, met up with a geologist from Colombia, one from Buenos Aires, and an assistant and spent most of my time with them.  Pretty educational.  They took me out to Castillos de Pincheira for free (they knew the park warden), a rock formation.  Hitch hiked back to town in the back of some guy`s truck.  For the second time, got sick on bife de chorizo so I think I´ll have no more of that.  One day delay, but it rained anyways, so no loss.  Next went to Caverna de las Brujas (Cave of the Witches).  Doesn`t look like much from the outside, but opens up quite a bit on the inside.  Like straight out of a story book, all the mixed up paths, the depth, the legends of the cave, and the size of it.  Some parts are not for the faint of heart, squeezing through tight spots on the ground only to have it open up to a big room on the other side or to have the floor drop out on the other side.  Cool wavy/ripple formations as well.  Descended down backwards with a guiderope during parts.  It was really wet inside the cave.  No false advertising, this was the real deal.
Different day, went to Payunia, the large area full of the volcanoes and other nature interests.  You have to go here in 4x4.  Saw hawks, parrots, vultures, armadillos, foxes, guanacos, and ñandus (like a rhea).  Amazing scenery.  The whole area only peaked up in interest about 4 years ago when they discovered the remains of an old lava flow of 180km, more in line with the lengths on Mars.  Earth`s are all around 30km.  So NASA got all interested.  Much of the area is privately owned, by farms or by the oil company.  You see a lot of oil rigs driving in.  (YPF is the main gas station down here, you see a million of them.  But it was bought by Respol and the king of Spain back in 1990ish which has the Argentines miffed.  Mendoza state residents pay the most for energy and the stuff is right in their backyard.  Gotta pay Spain.  Its constantly a topic brought up when the country leaders meet.)  The colors of the park were sweet.  Red (oxidized iron) and black on the ground and volcanoes, blue skies, white clouds, yellow/green shrubs.  One volcano we walked around looked like an ordinary hill and then on the other side it just looks like an explosion or a....volcano went off.  Really awesome, camera couldn`t capture it.  Lots of these around, though they are dormant in Payunia.  Outside this area, though, not all are dormant.  For example, when I was in northern Chile, a big one went off on the Chilean side further south.  Was big news.
Headed toward Cordoba, smack in the middle of things geographically.  Liked it well enough, but didn`t spend much time there.  Went into an old Jesuit crypt.  Amazing that something like that can go forgotten, only to be discovered recently by a phone company laying down lines.  They think there may actually be more even further underground but the Jesuits aren`t talking and the money/desire isn`t there to make an intrusion to dig and find out yet.  Lots of students and schools around, along with old churches (city was an old Jesuit stronghold).  That mix cooks up a lot of graffiti (¨Opressor!!¨) and stuff like that on the churches - and to be honest, the church doesn`t have the best track record here (besides the obvious, the church here has been much more intertwined with politics in history, than back home).
La Cumbre is just north of Cordoba.  The area around Cordoba is sierras, so lots of hills and stuff.  Really pretty area.  Green hills and lakes.  La Cumbre is known for its paragliding, so thats what I did next.  First day, wind wasn`t right for paragliding so had a really cool day hike where I think I may have been lost, but managed to find an awesome water hole pit you could swim in with rocks you could dive off, in the woods.  Next day was a go.  Drove out to the cliff we were to run off of.  First few people that went were down at the bottom in like 5 minutes.  A bit disappointing.  But then me and a friend I went with, went right after each other and had amazing luck.  The wind started cooperating and we went straight up into the air.  It was perfect!  Could have stayed up there forever.  Did some tricks (you go with an experienced person) like going parallel to the ground and going around in a circle.  Was way awesome.   Guide said the largest he`s stayed up before was 7 hours.  Holy crap!  We were up for around 25 minutes before he brought us down.  Right after we went, they stopped going because the wind picked up too strong.   Lucky for us, not so much for the rest.  Would be a fun hobby to start up (like surfing, its something you can do on your own, and its free once you have the equipment), but you gotta be living in the right spot to take advantage of it.  At the bottom theres a river and bar you can swim and hang out all day.
Before arriving in Buenos Aires (that was the longterm goal for the last month or so - to take care of some errands), made a stop in Rosario for a short bit.  Its right on the Paranà River (second most dominating river on the continent, after the Amazon) and there are plenty of beaches to hang out on.  Beautiful homes here, also.  I think Rosario is the 2nd or 3rd biggest city in the country.  Visited the monument to the Argentine flag.  Not all that special.
Then Buenos Aires.  For the 4th time.  Until a month ago, Argentina was the country I´d been in the least amount of time, yet I have 15 stamps in the passport for this country, and have now visited the capital 4 times.  Just came here to do a couple chores (get blank pages inserted into passport, get paraguayan visa) and catch up with friends.  After travelling a year and a half, I have quite a few contacts in BA and it was ridiculous amounts of fun catching up with everyone.  Was gonna stay 3 days.  Stayed 2 weeks.  Was sorta sad when I left and I was really close to deciding to just live there for a few months, as I am aware of a couple job opportunities as well (paying ones).  One English friend there is announcing in English Argentine soccer games for an online gambling conglomerate run by the Chinese mob.
Lots of fun activities over the next few weeks...big outdoor music shows, friend`s birthdays, asados (BBQ), drums, random reunions with porteños living here, travellers living here, travellers traveling through, lots of debauchery.  Mostly the party-fun more than the adventure-fun.  The US consulate is like a compound.  4-5 security checks just to get to a window.  On the other hand, theres a big difference between citizens and non-citizens.  We got helped right away while they just waited and waited in a crowded room.  My blank pages were free but tripled the thickness of the passport.  Unless I keep travelling like this until 2015, I should be good on pages.  Next day the Paraguayan consulate.  A very different (yet still pleasant) experience!  But first, the official requirements for the visa is some ridiculous list like 2 passport pictures, proof of sufficient funds, ticket out, ticket in, proof of lodging, who knows what else.  I brought the dough for the visa and one picture and I was good.  Even the form you have to fill out - I didn`t know half the info (addresses, dates etc..) so left everything blank.  No problem!  You think, of all places, Paraguay is gonna deny someone from entering if they`re willing to pay?  More on Paraguay later...
Caught some NBA games (they show them occassionally - though it always seems to be Houston).  A whole bunch of trades went down recently.  Interesting to see what happens.  Also, people down here are quite interested in the election back home.  Always on TV and always want to talk with me about it. 
Got a friend here who is a fireman, but firemen also have to split a bit of time doing cop work, so he`s a cop as well.  One day he says, hey wanna go to the shooting range?  Cool.  I brought along another friend I knew from Chile, and we shot stuff.  First range we went to wouldn`t let us in because we weren`t cops (just Damian).  Apparently its a federal law.  Next shooting range we tried didn`t seem to care about any federal law.  Got to pick our choice of shooting targets.  We absolutely destroyed a giant wild evil boar, and a bad guy with a woman in a chokehold (as Dave said, ¨She`s trying to break his arm!  Kill her!¨).  Nobody was safe.  We destroyed everybody.  Got a whole new respect for people with good aim.  Way more difficult with a pistol than a rifle.  Polished off maybe 6 clips and called it a day.  Gallery was totally dark and eerie too.  I shot one without the earmuffs just to see.  That will be the last time I do that.
All good things must come to an end, and the day came I packed my bag and headed north.  A longer trip plan is slowly coming to shape.  As you know, since I read that book back home I got super interested into Paraguay.  Wont rehash the reasons, but I`m definitely the only one I know who feels that way.  So I`m going there soon, then its open until a wedding in Brazil early April.  Only things left to interest me before Paraguay was the marsh/swamp areas in the north, and the old Jesuit mission ruins. 
Arrived in  Mburucuyà (named after a passion flower of the area) hoping to head to the park soon.  For a small area, the park includes ares of palms, chaco, and swamp.  Lots of wildlife.  As it turns out, Mburucuyà is the town with the nicest people I`ve ever met in my life.  They get very few visitors, even less from outside the state of Corrientes, even LESS foreigners, and even *LESS* Americans.  First night, got invited over to a family dinner that was really really good, and also invited to a soccer game the next night.  Also, chamamè, their regional popular music, is basically polka in spanish.  Unfortunately, just missed a big festival by two weeks.  Stayed at the only hotel in town, which is basically some guy´s house.  There is no transport going from town to the park (I constantly had that problem in Chile - you end up scrapping your plan, renting a car, or going with a tour group.  Ugh).  I stopped by the ranger station in town and they said they would be happy to take me in with them at 6am the next morning, coming back at 2pm.  Cool!  Saved a good chunk of cash for a taxi.  Ride out was cool, just bumping along in the back of a pickup.  Its about an hour.  Beautiful starry sky.  Got caught between wanting it to stay dark so I could star gaze, and wanting it to get light by the time I arrived at the park.  Are two trails at the park, one pretty much for school groups, where I saw some lagoons but not much wildlife.  And the other trail, going right up to the marsh, through 3 different habitat types, where I saw the rare Pantanal deer (reddish tint and fluffy looking hair), another small weird deer species whose name I forget (cautzelo?), capybara, flocks of toucans, and lots of other random birds.  On the truck ride back, saw ñandus.  Guess the land all belonged to a botonist who donated it to Argentina.  The ride back to town was 4 hours late, but oh well.  My buddy Gustavo was playing in the championship game for the town league that night.  Had the same environment as high school football back home.  Everybody was out there, it was a town event.  The field was atrocious.  Quite the South American podunk-town experience.  I could have stayed here a lot longer were it not for a few things.  Worst bed I`ve ever slept one - ruined my back after only one night.  Grocery store without groceries.  No restauants in town and pathetic cooking facilities with no cooking items at the hotel.
Lastly, the Jesuit mission ruins.  Something that may not have interested me until I read a book about the history once.  There are something like 30 old Jesuit missions in the area where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil are close.  But 7 are UNESCO heritage sites, so they are protected and in differnet levels of restoration.  San Ignacio is a good place to base yourself to see the ruins, so thats where I went next.   The most popular, most restored ruin is right in the town, called San Ignacio Miń.   A little weird how old ruins are plop right in the middle of town.   The mission was founded in Brazil in 1610(?) but in the 30s they picked up and moved to where the ruins are now.   That happened with lots of the missions.  They kept getting attacked and raided by bandeirantes (Portuguese/Brazilian slave traders) so the moved.   Its actually a pretty amazing story and picture to imagine, Father Rúz leading over 10,000 Guarańs through jungle, fleeing from the Portuguese, to start a new settlement.   He stopped and founded Nuestra Señora de Loreto, the largest and most important of the missions in the area (I´d get there, later).  Half the Guarań died in transit.  There were only 2-3 Jesuits per mission, which had around 4,000 Guarań, depending on the site.   The whole concept is worth some thought.  The Jesuits learned the Guarań language and the Guarań kept aspects of their culture.   But it was a trade off:  the Guarań had to adapt a completely different social and political structure, religion, and live with other unfamiliar tribes (Guarań were sort of semi-sedentary; part of the reason for the missions,¨reduccions¨ they called them, was to concentrate them in a single area).   So lots of their culture was lost.  The trade off was protection from bandeirantes and the stop of hunger.   A pretty unique relationship the Jesuits and Guarań had.  Natives and Europeans coexisting, although not in utopian harmony, as was made legend.   But its easy to see how that caught on - beautiful weather, land, vegetation, abundant food, water.   So were the Jesuits harm or help?  Destroyed a way of life, yet saved the Guarań from probable extinction.  The Guarań are definitely more of an obvious part of society, culture, etc.. than the Native Americans are back home (Consider, Guarań is an official language in Paraguay, and most folks only learn Spanish as a second language).   The Guarań were forest people, are a major major native group down here, and should be mentioned right along with Maya, Aztec, and Inca in students` social studies textbooks back home.  Kinda crazy how, in this entire continent, the only group consistently taught is the Incas.
Anyway, I visited 3 missions in the area (planning on going to two more in Parguay), all having the same basic setup.   The Jesuits were given the boot by Spain in the late 1700s, when the missions had to be abandoned, and then in the 1800s most of the missions were destroyed in war.   And the leftover parts were all taken by people as materials for building their homes.   This probably happened until recently.  Anyway, the first site, Miń, is the best preserved, owing to its earlier restoration date (started in the 1940s) and due to the fact that the people in San Ignacio took materials from OTHER ruins to build their homes.   Go figure.  The temple has a large picturesque facade that has been put back together.   No roof on anything anymore, but you can imagine the size of what the temple must have been.  I realize that talking about Jesuit ruins can be real boring unless you`re really interested, so I´ll scrap the details of how the places were organized.
Went to a 2nd site, Santa Ana.   I got turned around before arriving, and randomly ended up chatting and drinking tererè with a couple old people in the grass in front of a house.   As it turned out, the house we were in front of is the oldest in the area and the woman`s great grandparents grew up there.   And she was 84.  She got a real kick out of finding out she has the same birthday as my mom.   Bit of a weird conversation going from JFK to astrology to Marlon Brando.   After 6 hours, and eventually getting directions, arrived at Santa Ana ruins.   Most everything here is buried underground.   You walk along looking at the tops of walls.  Completely different atmosphere.  No town, just jungle and overgrowth everywhere.   Feels like you are discovering a lost city of gold or something.   The thing that probably most defines the place is the cemetary.  Old creepy graves, plants busting out, and overturned caskets.
Loreto was a pain to get to.   And there is almost nothing restored there.   In most places, just old stones covered with moss laying on the ground.   A couple things have been restored a bit, but not much.   Restoration just started in Santa Ana and Loreto in the 1990s.   The tomb of Father Rúz was in Loreto.  Just a headstone in the midst of forest, trees, and grass.   For being the largest and most important site of its time, it is the least recognizable today.
Back in San Ignacio, where I was staying, Miń had a free nighttime sound and light show which sucked.  I am staying at some artists home who has extra space.   A bit random, but the place couldn`t feel more welcoming.   The woman has two daughters and a couple friends from out of town staying, and we`ve all been having fun.   One evening, went down to the Rio Paranà to do some swimming.   Super fun and warm water too (I was called the human life preserver, as I was tall & could touch, while they all had to tread water.  Need a break?  Grab Chris`s shoulder).  And the little girls are hilarious and interested in everything.   Want to know about English, New York, have been telling them bits about the stars in the sky...Its like being a teacher without any responsibilities!  
Sort of wish I had a good excuse to stay, because this town has people just as friendly as Mburucuyà.   Small town syndrome.  Always saying hi to strangers, etc..Nobody sees you, thinks gringo, and immediately wants your change.  Was supposed to go to Paraguay today, but decided to do this update instead, so will go there tomorrow.   Was not at all expecting to spend so much time up here.   If I have any advice for people going to Argentina, its to not miss this northern part!   Next:  Paraguay, the bad country you hear some much negative stuff about.   Its boring, its dangerous, its corrupt, it has Dengue fever, the list goes on.   Yet, outside of border towns like Ciudad del Este, Asuncịn, and Encarnacịn, no travllers ever go there.  I may only have a bit of time there right now, but before coming home, I want to see the whole place.
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